A Moment for Optimism


by Farahnaz Ispahani for The Daily Times

The passage of the 18th amendment and its signing by the president has been rightly hailed by a broad spectrum of civil society as a landmark achievement of the PPP government, supported by its allies like MQM, ANP, JUI-F and the opposition party PML-N — in fact all political parties represented in parliament. It indeed represents a triumph for the policy of reconciliation pursued by the PPP government in line with the legacy of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto to take along all political forces. At the same time, it also constitutes a rebuff to sceptics, who all along have been expressing doubts about the sincerity of the president to forego his powers and the ability of the constitutional committee to finish the assigned task.

In fact, the passage of the 18th Amendment is unique in the sense that, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, a sitting president has willingly surrendered his powers to parliament and the prime minister. The constitutional package enjoyed the backing of all the political forces and the provinces, as was the case when the 1973 Constitution was drawn up. The president, contrary to the claims of his detractors, emphatically declared at the signing ceremony, “I am particularly delighted that the 17th Amendment has been repealed.”

The spirit with which all the stakeholders worked to cleanse the constitution of the aberrations introduced by successive dictators is indeed an unprecedented phenomenon. The Parliamentary Constitutional Reforms Committee led by Senator Raza Rabbani, which worked for over nine months, to firm up a package of 102 constitutional clauses, deserves unqualified accolades and the gratitude of the entire nation. Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani was spot on when he described it as a dividend of the policy of reconciliation, while addressing the National Assembly.

Another point worth noticing is that the obstacles faced by the constitutional committee in resolving some of the more contentious issues indicate how difficult an assignment it was. These developments have also vindicated the government’s stance to tread cautiously in resolving constitutional issues and avoiding the pitfalls of any hasty action. The repeal of the 17th Amendment through the passage of the 18th Amendment have made parliament sovereign, restored the powers of the prime minister as originally prescribed by the 1973 constitution, satisfied the provinces with regard to provincial autonomy and cleared the obstacles to good governance.

It is an undeniable reality that when the present government assumed power, the country was standing at the edge of a precipice. It faced the snowballing phenomenon of terrorism and religious extremism — a formidable threat. The armed insurgency in Balochistan needed to be contained. The unconstitutional steps of the dictator and aberrations introduced in the constitution required to be undone to put the democratic process back on track. The reinstatement of the deposed judiciary and constitutional and administrative complexities in this regard needed to be resolved amicably. Provinces and the federal government were at loggerheads on the question of distribution of resources. The economy was in a fragile state, marred by food shortages, power crisis, rising unemployment and burgeoning poverty.

The situation was not an enviable one for a representative government to land in. Granted that, during the last two years, it has not been able to resolve all these issues in entirety, but one thing beyond any reproach is that it has exhibited remarkable political will, determination, commitment and honesty of purpose.

It would, perhaps, not be out of place to mention some of the achievements of the government in all these areas. As for the war against terrorism, the government can rightly claim success in having halted the advance of the militants. Swat is an excellent example. The strategy evolved by the government, in consultation with the army and other stakeholders, and the determination shown by it in the face of heavy odds led to a complete ouster of the extremists from the area. The handling of the IDPs and their rehabilitation, with the military playing a major role in the effort, is also an unparalleled achievement. Despite retaliatory suicide attacks by these defeated elements, the government has not shown any weakness in its determination to eliminate the scourge of terrorism.

The Balochistan initiative, ‘Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan’, in consultation with national political leaders, government and legislators of Balochistan, represents a major political initiative to resolve this conundrum. The resolution of the resource distribution dispute between the provinces and the Centre through the 7th National Finance Commission Award is yet another achievement of the government, ungrudgingly acknowledged across the political divide.

In tackling the power shortage, the government has not been found lacking in commitment to fix this malady on a priority basis. During the last two years it has successfully set up three power plants of 200 MW each and another 1,000 MW plant will soon be available for integration into the national grid system. Shortly, 250 MW will be available from the rental power plants installed so far. Other measures such as the import of electricity from other countries are also being considered. The government has also taken steps to meet the long-term energy needs of the country. It is going ahead with the multi-billion dollar Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. Both countries have already signed a gas sales agreement to import 750 million cubic feet of gas per day, to generate 4,500 MW of electricity. During the recently concluded Strategic Dialogue with the US, commitments have been obtained for US help in tiding over the power shortage.

The grant of self-rule to Gilgit-Baltistan, restructuring bilateral relations with the US, a tripling of US aid for Pakistan, the Benazir Income Support Scheme, ‘Waseela-e-Haq’ initiative, the Benazir Employees Stock Option Scheme, which gives 12 percent share of state-owned industrial units to workers, the Benazir Green Tractors scheme, restoration of the deposed judiciary, abolition of the emergency, PEMRA law of 2007 and the resolution of net hydro-power profit for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and gas development surcharge to Balochistan, are some of the other measures that could be the envy of any government.

Nevertheless, it is true that the government has not yet succeeded fully in certain crucial social sectors and the economy in a way it would have liked to, due to a resource constraint and because of the battle against terrorism and rectifying constitutional distortions.

The successes in these areas present a moment of optimism. We hope that the government will be able to consolidate these gains and will also be in a better position to concentrate more vigorously on grappling with our economic issues, especially with the energy crisis and poverty alleviation, during the next three years.